I confess to not being as caught up as I could be on Jean-Luc Godard’s filmography. His rate of output brought him to 121 film and video projects by the time his last film, Goodbye to Language, was released. Indeed, I’m ill-equipped when it comes to his latest, The Image Book, in a multitude of ways. Before getting a chance to formulate the words to describe the film, I got schooled by its Wikipedia article description—Swiss avant-garde horror essay film. So right there, I’m playing catch-up; I wouldn’t have thought to use the term “horror” in that lengthy moniker despite the palpable latent dread that crept up on me after watching the film.
More importantly, I viewed this in probably one of the least suitable formats: on a tiny TV in my living room. Godard envisioned The Image Book as a video installation, and it premiered as such at the Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne in France. The exhibition included an end table, a rug from Godard’s home, and a book of poetry by Godard’s partner Anne-Marie Miélville (which he often quotes in the film). I can see the essayistic barrage of clips, sounds, and textures being far more effective in a more personal, curated space. If not in the museum environment, a dark theater might offer the sort of clarity needed to completely absorb the numerous messages, references, insights, and esoteric schools of thought. It really goes to show how much a viewing experience can alter the meaning of a film. Without these supplements, however, The Image Book, is still nothing to be dismissed. Godard, genius that he is, becomes more and more radical with each project. Even if you can’t decipher a second of it, watching the newest film by one of the world’s greatest and most legendary filmmakers will always be worthwhile.
Although this may be Godard at his most radical, it’s also Godard at his most Godard. Bold frames of text, intentional audio distortion, cryptic narration, and encyclopedic references to film, literature, music, and paintings comprise the entirety of this film. You don’t need a keen eye to recognize the cinema giants that Godard pulls from: Vertigo, The General, The Last Laugh, and even his own work. Alongside these fragments runs footage of trains, both from Hollywood films and documentaries of concentration camps during World War II, alluding to the correspondence between cinema’s greatest periods and the globe’s worst conflicts, but also sparking a comparison between the train cars and film frames—singular units forming a complete line of motion as they are pulled along a track. In addition to Third Reich imagery, glimpses of Vietnam and World War I come to the surface. With this, Godard is priming us to question the relationship between cinematic symbols and their correlative existence in the real world, specifically in matters of death and destruction.
Quoting one of many literary references, Godard notes that, “there is no doubt that the act of representation almost always involves violence against the subject of the representation”, and his process of collage filmmaking both literally assaults the image via jarring cuts, degradation and garish infrared color grading, but also in the figurative sense through the probing of ideology. While Godard holds reverence for cinema, he also understands its ominous power, especially as someone who has built his career around the belief that we write history with images in the 21st century. The entire second half focuses on the Middle East, from its cinema to news media and home videos, and retreads the same rhythms of wartime and culture. The most striking example would be the ISIS footage which Godard briefly includes like electric shocks next to a myriad of congruent but alternatively contextualized images. Memorably, a clip of ISIS executing a man and letting his body fall into a bank precedes a red-tinted excerpt from Vertigo where James Stewart swims toward Kim Novak. War is cyclical, he asserts, and repeated to the point of being considered divine, in some ways as a psychological necessity— “who could believe that the victims shed their blood in vain?”
But it’s not just war and death that play into Godard’s Arab-centric second half. He also includes many weighty references, both literary and filmic, to the exoticisation of the Middle East, and the invasion and plundering of its resources. The West’s reductive and trivializing representation of the Arab world correlates to the literal desecration of Arabic land by interests of commerce and world politics. These points, of course, benefit from illustration via Godard’s choppy and garbled narration, but don’t constitute the core of his messages, for which he employs visuals. The impetus of The Image Book is Godard’s steadfast belief that “words will never be language”. Indeed, even in those moments of narration, the words cannot be fully comprehended, both due to the flawed audio quality and Godard’s disdain for subtitles, but also their willful encryption, a practice that cuts down the power and supremacy of words but also requires you to more fully engage with the pictures on screen.
The best case for Godard’s method of a pure visual language comes, paradoxically, from a literary quote within the film— “I need one whole day to tell the story of a second.” We’ve all heard that a picture is worth a thousand words. Given how many histories, arguments, insights, philosophies, and points of view that Godard encapsulates within the hour and twenty-seven minute runtime of The Image Book, the case for that maxim has never been stronger. | Nic Champion
The Image Book is distributed on DVD and Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on this disc include an essay TIFF programmer James Quandt, an interview with producer and DP Fabrice Aragno, and a conversation with critic Nicole Brenez at the 2019 International Film Festival Rotterdam.